When I go home for the holidays the women in my family sit around talking about their husbands. When I was in college, I would try to bring up the good grades I had received in school or the most recent pro-choice protest I had participated in. They would take it in some listlessly, others more amused and then move on to my sister's latest beau. I could never join in this conversation for fear I would let a gendered pronoun (SHE!) slip and they would find out I was a DYKE. Eventually, I came out, but not much changed. My relationships just weren't legit. After confronting my mother one time, she responded, "It's OK, we don't care if you're different." Different? Different from what!? Many of us queers, femmes, butches, pansies, transgens, bis, leathermen, drag queens, bulldaggers will never be perceived as Normal. But why should we care? I mean, so the fuck what?! I've spent almost a decade committed to a struggle which questions what "normalcy" means in the first place. How is normalcy defined and by whom? How do you get some? Can you buy it at K-mart or do you have to go to Bloomingdale's?
One place we learn about what being normal is supposed to mean is in the family. But there are other places too school, the media, the local department store. In all of these spaces we find out what "normal" means to dominant society normal means heterosexual, it means middle class, it means white and it means rigid gender roles. Despite community, cultural, familial and economic differences, these confining, dominant definitions about how we should act and think affect all of us. Whether or not we buy into these definitions isn't the point. At certain times, in certain places, anyone can feel the sting of the normalcy machine.
Any queer reading this may find the above example about family holidays familiar. Or how about the butch dyke who tries to use a public bathroom in a mainstream movie theater, or the African American man who gets pulled over by the police for no reason except that it seems "suspicious" that he drives a Mercedes. While a lot of us in the "queer community" and other communities as well are part of the struggle against the imposition of these norms, still others insist on their reinforcement. And I'm not just talking about rabid conservatives like Gingrich and Helms; I'm talking about moderates, and liberals and all the ways in which institutions collaborate to produce and maintain norms about sexuality, race, class and gender. These norms create ideals that regulate how one should act, how one should look, and how one should love. I'm also talking about how these norms are maintained in our own community by those of us who think about "accepted" by the straight world will make things better for queers. This stance is most exemplified by self-appointed gay spokespeople like Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer and Gabriel Rotello, whose books insist that the aims of gay politics should be to mainstream ourselves into the "normal" world.
For years I have been incapable of dealing with people like my family, and the Andrew Sullivans of the world, because I didn't have a language to respond to their exclusivity. Sometimes you just want to scream. But I still believe in the utopian possibility that the binaries of normal/abnormal that demonize entire populations while consolidating others will finally collapse. But I also know that this can't happen overnight. We still have an enormous struggle ahead of us. That is why I was so disappointed when all of the potential politics of the 1993 March on Washington were hijacked by the gays in the military issue. The campaign for Military Service (CFMS), in their fight to lift the gay ban, ended up representing queer politics in alignment with militarism and the blatant imperialism it enforces. I know I wasn't alone in seeing the horrifying irony when CFMS held a gala fundraiser on the U.S.S. Intrepid warship, a potent symbol of US military history and its mistreatment of women, people of color, and, yes, queers.
Once again, I'm faced with a serious dilemma. My "community" and gay and lesbian "leadership" are spending a lot of time and money in support of gay marriage. But some of us think their money could better be spent on the grassroots organizations that have been working and organizing in our communities for years against racism, sexism and homophobia. Not only does the marriage issue steal attention and energy away from more fundamental issues like poverty, AIDS or healthcare, but it actually works against these other struggles by subscribing to a model of love that is linked to heterosexual norms. That is, marriage itself is part of dominant society's idea of what being normal means. LET ME MAKE MYSELF CLEAR. I am not against two same-gendered people falling in love and expressing that bond in a ritual ceremony of love and friendship. But let's wake up and smell the fantasy: fighting for government sanction of our sex lives is all about a desire to be normal. It's a desire we all have because maybe, just once, people will approve of who we are and what we do. But, if we want to work to really effect political change, we have to tear apart definitions of "normalcy" and pay attention to how the designation of "abnormalcy" hurts people.
Even a cursory investigation of recent legislation shows how the imposition of social norms affects entire populations. In New York, legislation was passed that mandates the testing of all newborn babies and their mothers for HIV. In North Carolina ACT UP lost its court injunction against the prohibition of anonymous testing for HIV. In California, Proposition 209 gutted affirmative action policies that had combatted discrimination for years. The folks who developed Proposition 187 in California are brewing up another initiative for 1998 that will make it a crime to sell or rent property to undocumented immigrants and allow businesses to sue competitors who hire undocumented immigrants. As if it couldn't get any scarier, California senator Diane Fienstein is proposing that all US citizens carry an ID with a microchip containing fingerprints, voiceprints and a photo. I guess then we really will know what normalcy looks and sounds like.
At times like this, it is critical that queers make connections between different forms of discrimination, instead of scrambling for the right to marry and trying to prove that we, too, are fit for society. And we need to stop defining queer politics as something that is isolated or different from other systems of oppression and begin to expand its meaning to include any systematic control over our bodies, be they any combination of African American, transgendered, lesbian, Asian American, sick, Chicana, immigrant, poor, and/or working the streets on a prostitute stroll. And yes I believe in love and committing to someone, but we don't need a piece of paper and government approval to do it: Some of us do it when we're in our beds fucking, some of us do it in backrooms at queer bars, some of us do it by holding our lover after she has been queer-bashed (again) and some of us do it by joining with our community to fight for real political change.
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